Towards a Post-Colonial Scotland
Nationalism is about the relationship between people and land. Ernest Gellner’s classic definition tells us that “nationalism is primarily a political principle that holds that the political and the national unit should be congruent”. In other words, nationalism is the ideology which supposes that the boundaries between political units and people’s self-identification ought to reflect one another. Nationalism has not disappeared in the age of Globalisation. In fact global flows of people and capital have led to diverse nationalist claims such as those from the BNP and the EDL, arguing against “cultural homogenisation” to Jim and Margaret Cuthbert’s claim that the nation-state can redress the problems of global capitalism. Walter Benjamin said “the state of emergency in which we live is not the exception but the rule”. History is in a permanent state of emergence and flux. Hybridity and the interstices between bounded units of identification have in many ways replaced those earlier bounded units as the norm. Hybridity and interstices now characterise our age of trans-border flows of people, services, goods, and ideas. This makes it impossible to formulate how cultural and political boundaries can be made to be congruent. Furthermore, clinging to old forms of identification may not help us solve the globalised social problems of today such as the environment and global poverty. As such, we may be better off focussing on how to make politics more humane or more simply, on how to make the world a better place. This article does not seek to support or deny the need for Scottish independence. Rather it argues that we should look beyond nationalist symbols and “self-interest” when we contemplate that ever-looming decision. We should place humans and the planet rather than a particular group of humans at the heart of our politics.
One striking feature about debates on independence in Scotland is that the nationalist politics of old continues to cloud the ongoing search for a humane, outward-looking politics. The independence issue remains haunted by a nationalist identity politics and an exclusivist sense of belonging: us versus them. The fascinating exchanges on Bella Caledonia between Mhairi McAlpine, Peter Kingsnorth, and Justin Kenrick in some ways reinforce such nationalist boundaries even though they are of the “progressive left” or “outward-looking Green” politics.
Mhairi McAlpine’s criticism of the “English left” was that they speak of the nation to mean British, where she identifies herself as part of a different nation, Scotland. Almost every person from Scotland has faced this encounter with the English (British?) Other. Do we so vociferously object because we are on the progressive left which values human solidarity over nationalism or because we are so attached to national boundaries that it challenges our sense of self-identity? If we use the vocabulary of nationalism in dividing the “Scottish left” from the “English left”, then I would suggest the latter. If we are to be “inclusive, radical and progressive” why do we respond to exclusion with exclusion by dividing the two? Paul Kingsnorth’s response in the comments section correctly raises the criticism that the “English left” is more diverse than can be summarised in a few paragraphs. However, his comment that “our situation is very different from yours” raises an ontological conundrum of who is the ‘we’ and who is the ‘you’ being referred to here. For many nationalists, the answer may be easy: we define ourselves by reference to actual or postulated national/political boundaries. For those on the left the answer is usually social classes, which probably always have and in the age of globalisation most certainly do, cross national boundaries. Justin Kenrick’s article ‘Reclaiming Independence’ attempts to reorient how we think about independence altogether by saying we need to be independent from global capital rather than “drawing a boundary on a map and ignoring the rest of the world”. Independence then is not about “some fabricated cultural sense of self” but about “unhooking ourselves from the machine that is destroying the conditions for life”. Like Kenrick, here I want to argue that politics and humanitarianism must take precedence over identity and nationalism if we wish Scotland to address the most pressing problems of our age: global warming and global poverty. However, how can we square such a commitment with “asserting the right of people in a self-defined area to determine their own affairs”? How is this self-defined area any different from the “desire to make cultural and political boundaries congruent”? Who are the people? Are we not all people? If we are to “remember who we are”, then who on earth are we? Our answers will of course depend on our political persuasions and our self-identifications. However, we ought to consider the regional and global implications of independence for Scotland over our self-perceived need to determine our own affairs. Our affairs will impact upon the whole world.
Voters will have to take the impending politics seriously as parties prepare for independence. Liberal Democrats appear to have collapsed in Scotland, the Conservatives are ‘rebranding’, and Labour are seeking autonomy from Westminster to rescue their reputation from accusations of not treating the Scottish Parliament with adequate seriousness. If we take the SNP as a potential victor in any election in a hypothetically independent Scotland it is hard to see how the world or indeed Scotland benefits. The SNP’s 2011 manifesto does not refer to human rights once. The fact that life expectancy is lower in Calton than in the war-torn Gaza strip is alarming and a perfect example of how Globalisation creates peripheries within centres and centres within peripheries. However, there is no mention in the SNP’s 2011 manifesto of how it intends to “tackle inequality” despite asserting it will do so. The SNP’s campaign to have the responsibility for corporation tax reserved to Scotland so that it can be reduced suggests, as Kenrick argued, that it seeks to invite global capital rather than redress the inequalities it produces. The SNP claims to have helped create a “fairer Scotland”. However, this does not consist in progressive taxation to tackle inequality. Through the abolition of prescription charges and tolls on the Forth and Tay bridges costs are reduced for everyone regardless of income. The SNP’s understanding of “fairness” is less about its stated intention to “tackle inequality” and more to do with a one-size-fits-all approach (equality of treatment rather than equality of consideration). Millionaires don’t pay to use the Tay bridge any more than families on low incomes.
If we look at the SNP’s claims to create a “wealthier Scotland” we don’t simply see a list of economic achievements . We see the promotion of cultural tourism through the Battle of Bannockburn visitor centre and the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum. There are many other forms of cultural tourism which could be emphasised here. Highlighting these two tells us something about the type of identity politics the SNP wishes to promote. As Benedict Anderson tells us, museums are “profoundly political” and they shape the language, which make the nation possible. Museums and tourism emphasise and promote particular aspects of nation-ness and in this case, Scottishness. According to the National Trust of Scotland, the Battle of Bannockburn visitor centre will “establish the site’s position as one of the most historically and culturally important places in Scotland”. Bannockburn was obviously an important historical event. However, by promoting it as a site of such importance today, a particular view of Scottishness is being endorsed and articulated. This is a Scottishness which is underpinned by a celebration of conflict with, and ultimately defeat of, the English Other. The Robert Burns Birthplace Museum “offers a truly unique encounter with Scotland’s favourite son”. Again no one can deny the social significance of the poetry of Robert Burns. Nevertheless, to elevate him above all others as our “favourite son” articulates a particular view of the nation where we have an exemplar of a national “tradition” written in Scots to the exclusion of other poets who may have written in Gaelic or English. This hints at an identity politics which hardly point towards an “inclusive, radical, and progressive” Scotland but one where conflict with the English and literature in Scots are not simply mentioned but emphasised. Are Bannockburn and Burns really the symbols we wish to project into a globalising world defining our position with reference to a past we did not live through? This is of course what states have done in the past- they promoted symbols to represent the nation and demand loyalty. However, as a nation with a potentially new state and a tradition of liberalism and tolerance would it not be possible to emphasise a new, humane politics rather than boundaries between humans?
The SNP’s greatest election success has arguably come at the expense of the collapse of the Liberal Democrats, owing to the latter’s formation of a coalition government with the Conservatives. This suggests that the Scottish electorate are more likely to vote for protection from free-market politics than an idealised and essentialising vision of Scotland’s past. Scotland is a postcolonial nation. We enjoy basic respect for human rights, democracy, and the rule of law in ways which other nations and indigenous peoples striving for “self-determination” in Tibet, Xinjiang, Chechnya, and Palestine do not. In such places nationalism may be the only form of political mobilisation to gain the rights we enjoy in Scotland. There is no question that there are colonial attitudes which remain amongst certain social classes in England. David Starkey is a case in point. However, we ought to rise above the inclination to respond to nationalism with nationalism. We can avoid creating an unending cycle of identity conflict in which we close the political possibilities of new forms of self-understanding and shape our politics by reference to out-dated cultural boundaries.
Mhairi McAlpine quotes Irvine Welsh who said we “oppress ourselves by our obsession with the English breeding the negatives of hatred, fear, servility, contempt and dependency”. She then goes on to say she would “like to think we have moved on”. Politics and attitudes in Scotland have changed a lot since the days of Thatcher. However, many of us remain oppressed. We allow ourselves to be colonised not by “the English” but by an imperialist political mindset that divides humans and characterises their traits according to fixed national units. This imperialist mindset informs how we ought to think and behave in order to be Scottish. One may say we have little choice but to use fixed national units in terms of structuring the international political system of states but we need not think about humans in this way. If we wish to address human problems, ending the cycle of trying to make cultural and political boundaries congruent would be a start. Independence may offer us an opportunity to decolonise ourselves from the historical oppression, which has left us demanding a politics which draws a stark boundary between us and them and prioritises the self over the other. This means thinking about the implications for ‘them’: can we address the issues of cross-border rights and access to services before embarking on the path to independence? The same should be said of the lack of clarity on Faslane naval base, renewable energy, and poverty in our cities, all of which are more important than changing political boundaries to reflect purportedly ancient and essentialising cultural ones. Most importantly what would our foreign policy look like? If Scottish independence can make the world a better place then we should be all for it. However, to paraphrase that master of post-colonial theory, Frantz Fanon: Scotland is not. No more than England.